Throughout the history of cinema, movies depicting historical events have been a permanent fixture. A filmmaker’s ability to use mood, lighting, and music, as well as fantastic settings, transports the viewer to a time and place that can evoke powerful emotion.
Not every movie set in the past is great, and there are plenty of supposedly prestigious films about important historical events that don’t have anything to say. When a historical drama is great, though, it can lead to a truly incredible cinematic experience. These following historical drama movies all fit that bill.
Schindler’s List (1993)
It can be difficult to render something as complex and evil as the Holocaust on film, but through Schindler’s List, director Steven Spielberg does his best to contend with its many horrors. Telling the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who begins hiring Jews into his factory in order to save them from a concentration camp, Spielberg is unflinching in his depictions of Nazi occupied Poland, and he gets astoundingly great work out of his entire ensemble cast.
Liam Neeson is particularly revelatory in the trole of Oskar Schindler, in part because he never pushes too hard into the sentimentality of Schindler’s good nature. Ralph Fiennes is even better as a concentration camp officer who is evil to the core, while Ben Kingsley is typically wonderful in a supporting role as well.
Sometimes classics are classics for a reason, and that’s definitely the case with Casablanca, a great movie that has earned every plaudit it’s been given. Telling the story of two lovers – Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) – who are reunited in the midst of the French resistance during World War II, Casablanca is rousing, and an urgent request for decency and goodness.
The Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca is immensely quotable, so much so that you may not even know you’re quoting it when you use lines like “here’s looking at you, kid” today. Bogart’s Rick is not a good guy, exactly, but he does the right thing for the right reasons, allying himself against the Nazis and letting the love of his life go. He’s made the world a better place, and done so at his own expense.
In some ways a movie that director Martin Scorsese had been working toward for his entire career, Silence is ultimately about one man’s faith. Following two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan in the 13th century in the hopes of finding a priest (Liam Neeson) who has disappeared, the priests are met with religious persecution and are eventually forced to renounce their faith.
As harrowing as Silence often is, it also feels like the culmination of an entire life spent thinking about questions of faith, and how that faith shapes who we become.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Telling the story of Solomon Northup, a freed man who finds himself kidnapped and sold into slavery, 12 Years a Slave is harrowing in its immediacy and its frankness about all of the small evils that made slavery possible.
Anchored by a brilliant performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Steve McQueen directed 12 Years a Slave is a stark reminder of the history of oppression in the US, and how inescapable it is from the present moment. In a system where some Black men are enslaved, none can ever be truly free.
Ava DuVernay’s decision to depict just a narrow portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life is what ultimately allows Selma to work. The movie, which takes place in the aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, is about King’s (David Oyelowo) struggle to force the Voting Rights Act through Congress.
The march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama, which serves as the film’s climax, is a transformative moment in history, and one well worth remembering in light of the modern political climate.
The Last Duel (2021)
The Last Duel is already the butt of totally undeserved jokes at its expense, but when the dust settles, it’s likely to be remembered as a great medieval drama. Telling the story of a single rape from three different perspectives, the Ridley Scott directed The Last Duel is a remarkable movie about how narratives are formed, and who does and does not get to be believed.
It all culminates in a bloody, thrilling duel, and thanks to its notable cast, which includes Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and an astonishingly great performance from Jodie Comer, who manages to create a consistent character even as the story weaves between different perspectives, every moment feels remarkably current.
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
A movie about World War II that barely mentions it at all, A Canterbury Tale follows an American G.I. (John Sweet), a British officer (Dennis Price), and a British woman (Sheila Sim) who are thrust into the middle of a small-town mystery.
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale is wonderfully unfocused, and is perhaps the single best definitive statement of what World War II was fought over. Is there some hagiography underneath A Canterbury Tale? Certainly, but the movie is also a fierce reminder that a war is only worth fighting when it fosters a return to peace.
Bright Star (2009)
Telling the story of the love between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and a young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Bright Star contents itself with being a focus on the theme of love and how it inspired Keats to write.
Thanks to director Jane Campion’s sensitive, warm direction, Bright Star stands out in a field of period pieces that it has the most in common with. The movie tells a very typical story, but focuses on the small moments that allowed these two to connect on such a deep level, even if it was only for a brief time.
First Man (2018)
First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) trip to the Moon, is remarkable in large part because of how clear it is about the fact that these engineers were flying into space in tin cans. Thanks to great work from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, First Man is also a story of one man’s grief, and his inability to express that grief to anyone around him. In its biggest moments, the Damien Chazelle directed First Man is overwhelming and majestic, but it spends plenty of time on the smaller moments as well, and on who Armstrong really was.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Perhaps the greatest film ever made, Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) who served as an liaison between the British and the Arabs during the British war against the Turks.
A truly epic story about one man’s triumph and eventual fall, what makes Lawrence of Arabia great is director David Lean’s concern with who Lawrence actually was. Lawrence of Arabia is the kind of movie that never gets made today, and the movie landscape is worse for that fact.